Monday, January 6, 2014

Gerringong... Somewhere on the Stra'an coast

Over the hill to Boat Harbour, to swim start at Gerringong. Werri Beach is one of the more spectacular ocean swim venues.
There’s a bloke down at Gerringong who’s known as Rust. Why’s he called rust? “Because he gets into your car whether you want him to or not,” says a Gerringong local. This is one of life’s vignettes that you discover by going to little swims such as Gerringong’s and enjoying a quiet little drink on the deck of the surf club afterwards, overlooking the beach. You didn’t really need to know about Rust, but it’s nice finding out: one of those whimsical asides that add a dimension to your swim day.

Not that you need more dimensions at Gerringong. It’s a beautiful, even spectacular beach, a long, gently curving arc set between two spectacular headlands, with a rockshelf at the southern end prompting a runout in the corner which can be deadly if the seas are running. To get to swim start, you must traipse up one of these headlands, the southern one, then down through the cemetery on the other side to Gerringong’s Boat Harbour.

Boat Harbour is little more than fjord-like inlet, protected from the worst of the southerlies by another headland, almost an island, which juts a half kilometre or so out to sea on the southern side. Around 150 years ago, there was a jetty at Boat Harbour, where the merchantmen would berth to pick up cedar, which grew on the hills around the town. Those hills are newd now. The merchantmen would take the cedar to Sydney and Brisbane. Now there’s none left, and the jetty is long gone, although there’s a bit of maritime detritus on the bottom off Boat Harbour to remind you of the place’s heritage, to inspect as you swim seaward from swim start on the boat ramp now used by fishos to launch their tinnies.
There once was a jetty where the boat ramp now lies, and Capt. Christie would berth there to collect timber.
 The swim skirts the rockshelf under the headland between Werri Beach, Gerringong’s main beach, and the harbour. The rockshelf is square and bluff at its southern end, generating a backwash that can be problematic and bumpy as you head north. But it eases as you go, and by the time you get to the point off Werri Beach, the bigger problem is the run-out.

The organisers set the final booees off the beach at an angle to the point, so they take you across the run-out rather than making you swim through it inwards towards the beach. When the seas are running, that run-out quickly could take you a few hundred metres seawards. It’s a prime example of the adage that you don’t swim against rips, you let them take you out, around, then let them drop you back behind the break, which is what they’ll do. Or you swim across them. But definitely not into them.

Each time we come to Gerringong – we haven’t been for four or five years – we’re struck by how stunning this coastal town is. The business centre, a string of shops along Fern St, stretches along a ridge above the beach. Towards its southern end, the ridge arcs eastwards, forming a cradle around the flatland and the beach below. At the bottom of the hill, below the ridge, the caravan park and camping area bursts with holidaymakers at this time of year, many of them annual regulars. Many of them spend their lives coming to Gerringong for their holidays, then they move there permanently as they mature into nicely aged grandparents. And their grandkids visit them annually, and they develop affection for the place as their parents and their grandparents did before them.

We’ve seen Gerringong on some blustery, unpleasant days. When the wind blows from the south and the swell rises, it can be a nasty, open beach of shifting banks and nasty breaks and swirling gutters. But on a good day, it’s the ideal of gentle coastal beaches. Today is a good day. Indeed, we don’t reckon we’ve ever seen Werri Beach so beautiful. There was a swell of less than a metre, a cloudless sky, water of 20 degrees, which is cool enough to stop you overheating on a midsummer’s Sundee, but warm enough to be pleasant. Mind you, we carry our wettie built in, so perhaps we’re not the best judges of coolness. We weren’t here five or six years ago when the cold water came in overnight, the black nor’-easter blew, the seas ran, and the swim was shifted around to Gerroa, a couple of kilometres to the south, protected from the black winds. The cold water arrived overnight, literally, and it affected the coast from Newcastle in the north down past Gerringong in the south. Its cause was day after day after day of those black nor’-easters, which pushed the warmer summer current out of place, against the Coriolanus effect, sucking up the cooler water from below. On this day five or six years ago, in mid-summer at Gerringong, the water was 12.5 degrees Celsius. Swim organisers put a 45 minute time limit on the swim at the emergency location at Gerroa. We remember our cobber, Barry “The Lurv God” Lang, who has a problematic history with his ticker, was pulled out as the time expired, and he was glad to be.

No such problem today, however. There was a light offshore breeze blowing in the early morning, which switched to a light nor’-easterly as we left the surf club to head over the hill to the start. The seas’s were smooth. Ish. On the boat ramp at Boat Harbour, the breeze was almost indeterminate in the shelter of the headland, and even as we emerged from the shelter around the rock shelf, it remained gentle. It exploded into a black nor’-easter as the presentations ended, but by that time, it bothered no-one who was there for the swim.

It was good, good water. A little rolly rather than bumpy; clear; cool without being cold; plenty to watch on the bottom; an easy run-out to cross from the point; and after you turned the final booee, there was a nice little swell to run with into the beach. 

To sea, to sea... and the masses surge seawards.
 This swim is named for Captain Christie, who was skipper of one of those merchantmen that would call into Gerringong’s Boat Harbour to collect loads of cedar. In 1879, so the story goes, Capt. Christie bet a crewman a bottle of whisky that he could swim around the rock shelf to Werri Beach. No-one thought he could do it, but he did, and he won his bet. Now, all finishers in the swim also collect a miniature bottle of whisky, to mark the swim’s provenance.

It’s a nice, community swim, with people such as Rust, and Jungle, involved in the background. And the bloke who runs the PA system has been doing it for years, for clubs and schools up and down the coast. There’s a fish auction, when the local fishos sell off their weekend catch with all funds going to the surf club. It used to have a fashion parade, too, but that doesn’t happen any more. The briefing prior to the swim concludes, annually, with a short memorial service for Bob Churton, a Gerringong surf club stalwart, who died some years ago. There’s a memorial garden for Bob in front of the club, where the flagpole’s planted into the earth. They haven’t forgotten you, comrade.

There were 198 starters at Gerringong, paltry compared with the 688 or so who swam the same morning at Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches. The organisers would be concerned if the field grew past 250: would they have the resources to cope with the crowd? But it’s swims like the Captain Christie Classic that give ocean swimming its culture. One of the caper’s beauties is that we can drop into a beach like Gerringong once a year, or once every few years, and the weekend after, we can drop into another beach, likewise visiting only once a year. The following week, another beach. And on we go through the season. We go to places we’d never go to but for ocean swimming. We’ve discovered places that we’d never have discovered but for ocean swimming. Gerringong is special amongst them.


  1. Ah Captain William Earnest Bartholomew Christie! A man who would seemingly do anything for a drink! A man after my own heart! What a great blob Paul! I missed it this year choosing to invite mum to visit us in our glamorous Dungowan digs instead of staying at her house in beautiful Gerringong. I am so jealous of the idyllic conditions! Mark swam Newport instead and needed more than a whisky miniature when he finished after a spectacular unintended tumble turn in the break. Hope you got some fish in the auction and congrats to Mrs Sparkle on the place.

  2. I did this swim on Sunday & was blown away by the sheer beauty & hospitality of the whole swim. It really was a slice of magic & a wonderful way to start the year. It was seriously old school cool in every way. The flatbed truck had me from the start & the preso complete with fish auction was pure gold.
    I can't wait to return next year.

  3. dear dr osc I notice my name in your report on Gerringong I remember that cold day at Gerringong with cool affection. today it would be refered to as a sub arctic or polar vortex Luckily for this tragic the organisers made the correct decision to change the course to save people like me from themselves However,Im still keeping abreast of whats happening in the swims via your informative site not quite stalking you but I read your reports studiously best wishes to you and her sparkling majesty (the lurve god)

  4. Ah yes the Captain Christie. Afew years ago (about a decade ago actually) when the sea was crashing into that headland, it was a very different day to last Sunday. So the organisers wisely decided to run the swim the other way and shifted the start to Werri to put us out through that rip. Well I made it back to boat harbour, tired buy happy (I'm always one of the last to finish). I got handed a little yellow sticker with my time on it, went home, was having my afternoon sleep when the phone rang. They had boats and a helicopter out looking for me. (My kids still remind me that the pilot reported seeing my dead body floating in the ocean but upon closer inspection realised it was a sunfish). Moral of the story for small events without electronic timing. Swimmers must ALWAYS remember to get your name crossed off. And for organisers to ALWAYS make sure that someone watches the stragglers who are very tired (particularly after a monumental swim in a big sea) and help them find the little desk so that they can get their name crossed off.

  5. 19 years straight for me so looking forward to number 20 in 2015. I remember that cold swim at Gerroa and how out the back a warm current full of small jellyfish thick enough to assist the swim stroke, an amazing experience for me. Amazing how the body adjust's to those cold conditions. Of course as Pete (one of the long term Surf Club members...PA Man from the fat-bed truck) instructs " a smear of vaso on the forehead is a cheap wetsuit"! ha ha and does actually work!!


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